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One of Western New York’s wildest weather rides of the last couple decades is approaching the finish line, but those final few laps won’t be easy ones.

Major highways, including the Thruway, have reopened but traffic is moving slowly.

Officials also planned to reopen government offices in the morning, but school administrators weren’t as optimistic. Many districts, including Buffalo and Niagara Falls, planned to cancel classes for the second straight day.

Nevertheless, there are signs of improvement.

Those ominous, heavy gray, snow-laden, lake-effect clouds are weakening and dissipating. By late Tuesday, the squalls had narrowed into a thin band that stretched from around Lackawanna across Erie County through towns just south of the Thruway.

The ferocious howling winds that transformed the landscape into a raw arctic tundra are subsiding. At 11 p.m., the National Weather Service office reported no gusts at its office in Cheektowaga for the first time in 32 hours.

Furthermore, the mercury has made it back into the black. It may be only in the low single digits, but it’s without the bitter wind chills. When temperatures climb into the teens this afternoon, it should feel almost tropical.

Although it was short, roughly two days in duration, this was a severe storm – the first bona fide blizzard in Buffalo Niagara in 21 years.

But when its epitaph is written, and our collective present-day weariness turns into nostalgia, what may be remembered most about the Blizzard of 2014 is that nothing beats advance notice and preparedness.

“As of the information we have right now, there does not appear to have been a single death associated with this storm,” Mark C. Poloncarz, Erie County executive, announced at a Tuesday evening news conference.

Poloncarz also announced Tuesday evening that all Erie County offices and services would reopen for business at 10 a.m. today.

Unlike some other big storms that seemed to blitz the region without much warning – Thanksgiving Week 2000, the October 2006 “Surprise Storm” and the Dec. 2, 2010, storm that paralyzed motorists in place along the Thruway – residents knew this storm was coming and took it seriously.

As a result, they were ready. They shopped for milk and bread in advance, generally stayed off the road and, with or without a “six-pack,” hunkered down indoors. It likely saved lives.

“That’s the goal,” said Tom Paone, National Weather Service meteorologist. “That’s always the goal.”

Weather Service forecasters, eyeing models and historical data of a passing low-pressure system north of Lake Ontario, knew late last week they were in a sweet spot of sorts for precisely calling the storm, Paone said. That allowed residents to prepare and local, county and state governments to mobilize resources and set plans last weekend before the first flake flew.

Highway crews from Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island were pre-emptively dispatched upstate. Gov. Cuomo activated the National Guard. The Thruway was closed in affected areas along with several other routes, including the Skyway and Routes 219 and 400. Municipal governments imposed travel advisories or bans.

And schools throughout the region closed Tuesday. Many of them also are closed today.

“We’ve really mastered the ability to live through inclement weather,” said State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo. “This storm took the whole nation by storm. That helped to get people recognizing the significance of this storm and unique nature of it. There was a level of preparation that the community took to this storm.”

Day Two

Like hitting the replay button to a favorite tune, the Blizzard of ’14’s second day was a virtual reprise of its Monday arrival in town.

The Southtowns got walloped again. Swirling, gusty winds whipped snow through streets and open fields, creating zero visibility.

Temperatures plummeted even further – down to minus 5 degrees at 9:55 a.m., tying a record set in 1942 – before rebounding back into the single digits later in the day.

The frigid temperatures, which with the wind dropped wind chill values into the dangerous minus 30-degree range, also were blamed for numerous water-main breaks throughout the county. Crews were tending to four or five broken mains on Grand Island, Poloncarz said. The Erie County Water Authority also was trying to mop up another main rupture on Route 5 near the former Bethlehem Steel plant.

Water everywhere also was a problem along the east channel of the Niagara River in the City of Niagara Falls and Grand Island as a result of ice jam flooding from high winds and increased ice flow. An ice jam formed between the Power Authority intakes and Cayuga Island, prompting the Weather Service on Tuesday to issue a flash flood warning.

Meanwhile, storm snowfall totals finally began rolling into the Weather Service office late Tuesday afternoon. In Erie County, Elma topped the list at 18 inches. Orchard Park recorded 15 inches. There was 14 inches in Marilla and West Seneca, and 7.6 inches at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Elsewhere, Fredonia and Le Roy each recorded a foot of snow.

Some motorists got themselves into trouble in the thick of lake-effect snows.

State Park Police deployed four snowmobiles to patrol the 35 miles of Route 219 to aid stranded motorists who may have disregarded the road closure, Sgt. Tom Krawczyk said.

Krawczyk said several disabled motor vehicles were found. Officers also checked on stranded motorists who went around blockades on entrance ramps. It was a teeth-chattering proposition for the park police. The extreme cold penetrated officers’ face masks.

“I guess the best word you could use for it is ‘extreme,’ ” he said. “The cold and the wind would actually take your breath away.”

Tuesday’s peak clocked wind gust – 62 mph, out of the west-southwest – occurred at 11:30 a.m. at the Buffalo breakwater. At the airport, there was a 51-mph gust at 2:26 p.m., according to Weather Service records.

In Eden, police said rogue motorists disregarding the travel ban posed problems.

In one instance, a town police car was nearly hit head-on by a motorist who was then ticketed.

“It’s a huge safety concern,” said an Eden police dispatcher, also noting cars in ditches along Route 75 and Eckhardt Road.

“It’s a treacherous mess,” added Eden Police Sgt. Shawn Bishop. “Today was probably the most dangerous I’ve seen in 23 years.”

In some other places where travel bans were imposed, like Lackawanna, police cruisers stood sentry in the early-morning hours in swirling winds and heavy snow to block traffic into the city on South Park Avenue at its border with Buffalo.

A heavy curtain of lake-effect snow descended over South Park Avenue just south of Ridge Road through the night, reducing visibility to zero and making the roads impassable.

On the South Buffalo side of South Park Avenue, Bob Ruper, the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. overnight clerk at the Noco Express station, found the wee hours of Tuesday morning to be a little less lonely than a usual graveyard shift while the Blizzard of ’14 howled outside.

“It’s been busy,” Ruper told a reporter at about 4 a.m. “People have been coming in here all night. Snacks, drinks.”

He recalled one young woman who rushed into the store wearing her pajamas. She bought a bag of potato chips and ran back outside.

All night, Ruper watched the winds whip snow through the large front windows of the store. He called the scene outside “violent” and a night that he will never forget.

“It’s a postcard from hell, man,” he said. “It looked like everything was sandblasted with snow. It was like painted on. “The last time I saw anything like this, I was a little kid.”

Looking ahead

There’s no mistaking the fact that 2013-14 is the return of “real” winter to Buffalo Niagara after a two-year hiatus.

Buffalo eclipsed the 50-inch mark for seasonal snowfall Tuesday, pushing it closer to overtaking last year’s 58.8-inch grand total. The region blew by the 2011-12 season total – 36.7 inches – weeks ago, seemingly with one lake-effect snowstorm after another since Thanksgiving.

After enduring another day of round-the-clock blizzard conditions, many weary residents wondered: What next?

“When we get into the morning, the winds will start subsiding little bit,” said Paone of this morning’s forecast.

“The worst of the snow is shifting to the south. The snow bands aren’t going to be as intense. The lake effect is going to be weakening quite a bit.”

The blizzard warning, first posted at 5:23 p.m. Monday, is set to expire at 6 a.m. A warning for wind chill values as low as minus 25 was posted until 4 a.m.

Meanwhile, state officials were expected to begin plans to reopen the Thruway, which remained closed late Tuesday between Rochester and Ripley.

The stretch east from Williamsville and the Niagara Thruway will likely be the first reopened to traffic. The toll-free Buffalo zone will reopen when conditions permit. Areas between Lackawanna and Ripley, where squalls were expected to remain today, are expected to be the last to reopen.

Erie County officials also were awaiting a survey of road conditions before opening up other routes, Poloncarz said.

Tonight will spell the end to this round of the coldest air. Temperatures are forecast to drop again to the high single digits but then will rebound into the 20s for Thursday and Thursday night.

And another warm-up is forecast for the weekend. Rain is on the docket for Saturday, with daytime high temperatures approaching 50 degrees. Sunny conditions and a high in the 40s is forecast for Sunday.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but there’s the clearing.

News Staff Reporters Harold McNeil, Joseph Popiolkowski and Karen Robinson contributed to this report.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

Direct hit for metro: High winds, two lake-effect bands bring whiteout conditions.

Ice jams cause flooding: Rising water, ice threaten homes and drivers on Grand Island. | PAGE A6

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